(Avoiding) The Road To Provincetown

To drive to Provincetown, you take Highway 6 out to near the end of Cape Cod, and then cut over to a beachside road for the final approach. The road takes you over a rise, and then suddenly the town appears laid out in front of you, curving off to the left. It’s a beautiful, postcard-perfect view, whether you’re arriving in the day or at night.

Before last week, I’d made that trip four times. The first three — June of 1981, August of 1985, and April of 1987 — were to see my brother Jim, who was fortunate enough to live in Provincetown. Each time we approached on that road, I was filled with excitement and anticipation. I was looking forward to seeing Jim, of course, but also the town itself has always had a kind of mystical attraction for me.

The fourth time I rode down that road into Provincetown was for Jim’s memorial service — he died of AIDS on July 9, 1987 — and as we came over that rise and saw the town, my already deep sadness about his death was suddenly multiplied. As the town grew larger before us, I remembered the elation I’d felt at that point in the previous trips, and this time it was turned upside down. It was the deepest, darkest pit of sadness I’ve ever experienced: a coal mine of grief.

The memorial service went all right. We — my brother Phil, my cousin Bruce and I– had a good visit with Jim’s many friends in Provincetown, and we got through it all somehow. I was of course sad about Jim’s death for many months afterward, but life went on: my wife Jean and I bought a house, we had children, we moved on to new and better jobs, and so forth.

Jim in Provincetown, 1981.

For me, the sadness evolved into a kind of thankfulness: I could see many things in myself that I knew were heavily influenced by Jim, the two most prominent being what I might call a detached, ironic sense of humor, and a deep connection to certain kinds of music. So whenever I came upon something that reminded me of him — which I would say happens at least daily, even now — my memories would not be accompanied by sadness, but instead by joy in that connection with him.

On the whole, I think I have “handled” his death pretty well.

On Friday — 23 years and two months after that fourth trip — I went to Provincetown again. But this time I avoided that beachside road. I took the “fast ferry,” a 90-minute boat ride from downtown Boston to MacMillan Wharf in P-town. I’d ached to get back to Cape Cod and P-town ever since 1987, but had never gotten up the cash … or the nerve. Last weekend, after an improbable business meeting in Boston (I’m involved with the inland-river barge industry; most of our meetings are in places like Paducah, Memphis, Louisville, or, if we’re lucky, New Orleans), I had the opportunity to take a couple of extra days to steal out to the Cape. I was thrilled about the trip ever since I confirmed that I’d be able to go.

But as I sat on the ferry at the dock in Boston, waiting to shove off, I was suddenly, unexpectedly, seized by nerves and intense emotion.

The fast ferry leaves Boston.

A group of three girls boarded the ferry and were sitting close to me on the upper, outside deck. From what I could hear, they were heading out to the cape for a bachelorette weekend, and they were giddy with excitement; not long after they sat down, they were breaking out a bottle of champagne and making mimosas. I was reminded of the excitement I felt on my early trips to the cape … and the weighty contrast with that last time I’d gone. Before long, I got up and found a seat in a different area of the ferry.

My plans for this trip included meeting up with Sinan, who was Jim’s partner for some of the time he lived there. I had first met him during that trip in 1985, and then, although he and Jim had mostly broken up by then, he was helping to care for Jim after Jim got sick in late 1986. Sinan and I kept in touch for a while after the memorial service, but, with time, our letters tailed off, and for maybe 20 years we hadn’t communicated. But this spring, through the magic of Facebook’s friend-finder feature, I was able to reconnect with him, and not long after that, this trip to Boston came up. We made plans to get together for dinner. Early last week I sent him a message with a final confirmation that I’d be able to come out to P-town, and he suggested a restaurant: the Mayflower, which he said was one of Jim’s favorites.

A day or so later, he posted something on his Facebook wall that sent me reeling. It was one of those silly Facebook “like” things, where someone comes up with a pithy little statement, and other people can “like” it, and it shows up on their wall too. This one, though, wasn’t silly. It said: “Death leaves a heartache no one can heal; love leaves a memory no one can steal.” True words, those, but they stung whenever I let myself think about them — were my efforts to reconnect with Sinan dredging up painful memories for him? Was this meeting going to be as hard for him as it was turning out to be for me?

Halfway through the ferry ride, the seas got rougher. By then I was sitting inside, and I actually wrote an early draft of this blog post. The writing turned out to be somewhat cathartic. My nerves had calmed down a bit as we got closer to the cape, and when I first noticed that we were alongside land, which I guess would have been the sandy, remote beaches near Race Point, the needle on my emotional meter was wavering toward Excitement, rather than Grief. As the iconic Pilgrim Monument came into view, the needle was trending a little further on the positive side, but also bouncing back into Grief every once in a while. I had to consciously push aside the sad feelings that were welling up, and replace them with positive memories. It was a battle I would end up having to wage several times during my time in P-town.

The ferry landed and I walked down MacMillan Wharf and up into town, dragging a huge suitcase overloaded with business clothes I’d no longer be wearing on this trip. I found the inn where I’d made a reservation for the night: Dexter’s, on Conwell.

By a strange and happy coincidence, Dexter’s turned out to be right across the street from where Jim lived the last few years of his life. I suspected this when I went out for a run shortly after checking in, and Sinan later confirmed it at dinner. The layout of the property he lived on has changed a bit, but I still recognized the block and the surrounding area. I had hoped to find Jim’s old place while I was there, but when I reserved at Dexter’s, it was just the result of an Internet search for low prices: I had no idea it was on the same street.

I ran out to Herring Cove, which was one of Jim’s favorite beaches. I took the shortcut over the sandy flats to the dunes that back up the beach, having to take off my shoes several times to wade through the pools and streams of water that covered parts of the path. The payoff, though, was magnificent: the beach was beautiful, with the sun just starting to come down over a turbulent surf. Being on a run, I didn’t have my camera with me (this was one of the few times on the whole trip), which was a pity because I could have gotten some great shots. There was hardly anyone on the beach — it was also very windy — which made it even nicer for me.

Sinan and I met up at 7 at the Mayflower. We had a wonderful dinner and talked for a couple of hours about Jim and about our families and lives and work. By this time, the positive emotion of happy remembrance had all but won out over the resurrected grief. Sinan, by the way, had not posted that Facebook “like” in response to my impending visit, but had simply “liked” something that a friend of his had “liked.” Not that that detracts from the truth of those words, though.

Jim in 1981. Though slightly blurry, it’s one of my favorite pictures of him.

Sinan has been in a committed relationship since before Jim died. I must have met his partner in 1987, if not 1985, but I don’t remember him. Every time I went there, I met a lot of Jim’s friends, and I was never sure who was a lover and who was a friend. That’s part of what I never fully understood or knew about Jim, the level of commitment in his relationship with his lovers. Those commitments always seemed to be more fluid than in my world, and for Jim, apparently, they were even more fluid than most in his community. That, no doubt, led to the sequence of medical events that resulted in my fourth visit to Provincetown. And of course, Jim’s insatiable appetite for partying probably played a huge role as well. I have no doubt the story would have turned out differently if he had stuck with Sinan, who was certainly a calming influence on both fronts.

But we can’t change history; we can only deal with it. After dinner, Sinan and I parted with a hug and a promise to stay in touch — it’s a lot easier, now, with Facebook — and I explored nighttime Provincetown a little more before returning to Dexter’s to do some writing and go to sleep.

Saturday morning I did some more photo-walking around town, and then was one of the first customers at Edwige when it opened for breakfast. That was another favorite place of Jim’s. I had just enough time to enjoy my Lobster Benedict before I had to check out of Dexter’s and queue up for the 10:30 ferry back to Boston.

My visit to Provincetown was as much about “place” as about “person.” Yes, I wanted to reconnect as much as I could with Jim, and clarify my memories of him. Sinan was a huge help in that regard. But I also wanted to reconnect with the town itself. If you have ever been there, perhaps you understand the almost magical attraction it has. It’s hard to explain, and to try would probably require another equally long essay. But I can say I feel it is the town where Jim finally found peace and happiness in his life, and for that fact alone, I will always love it. It was, and continues to be, probably my favorite place on earth.

There were several additional places I had hoped to visit while in Provincetown. I had wanted to go for a run in the Province Lands, the wild area of dunes and beech forests immediately behind the (over)populated area of town. Also, there is an enormous sand dune beyond the east end of P-town, from which you can see the whole town and both Cape Cod Bay on the “outside”* of the cape and Provincetown Harbor on the inside. Jim took me to that dune several times, and his ashes were scattered there in 1987.

Unfortunately, with only 18 hours between ferry rides, I couldn’t fit everything in that I wanted to. Those two items will have to wait until my next visit — which hopefully will be sooner than 23 years from now.

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6 thoughts on “(Avoiding) The Road To Provincetown”

  1. * What would seem to be the “outside” of Cape Cod, at Provincetown, faces “in.” Because of the twisted geography of the cape, if you’re standing on the outer beach, you’re actually looking back toward Boston; Herring Cove Beach, in fact, faces due west. MacMillan Wharf, which juts into Provincetown Harbor on the inside of the cape, actually goes out to the east-southeast.

  2. Really beautiful piece, John. I have to say, seeing you was cathartic for me as well. I had somehow managed to shelve some of those memories – life goes on, as you say. Seeing you brought back all the good things, remembering Jim. And seeing these photos – so wonderful. I love your observations about the town and, especially, your honest thoughts about Jim. Very moving. I was glad I could be part of this experience for you.

    Sinan

  3. What a moving and beautifully written piece about Jim. I knew Jim from First Congregational fellowship back in the day. Thanks for sharing this.

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